17 February 2020

Blithe Spirit at Richmond Theatre missed the mark

I am always up for some Noel Coward and as it had been nine years since I last saw Blithe Spirit I jumped at the opportunity to see it again when a pre-west end production arrived at Richmond Theatre.

I jumped early enough to get my usual seat Dress Circle A25 for the opening night offer price of £31. That was a little more than I am used to paying there but the omens were good, not least the inclusion of Jennifer Saunders. I heard in the chatter beforehand that some other front-row regulars had been forced back to row E because of their tardiness and the Dress Circle looked to be sold out.

It was clear from the very begging that this was a different production from the one that I saw before as the opening scene was a maid having difficulty bringing a tray of drinks into the room. Elements of slap-stick pervaded the play from then on and to no good effect.

I think that what followed was an attempt to update the tone of the play and to complement the witty dialogue with less subtle humour. This was Blithe Spirit but not as Noel Coward wrote it.

Of course there is nothing wrong with updating or experimentation and the packed audience clearly loved this Blithe Spirit and Jennifer Saunders' role in it but while I found it entertaining it failed in comparison with my previous experience of it in every department. To give one specific example, in the 2011 production my star of the show was Ruthie Henshaw who played Elvira (a ghost) and in this production the actress playing that role does not even get a mention on the Richmond Theatre website.

I trying to improve Blithe Spirit, or to make it more accessible perhaps, this production lost almost all of the wit and charm that made the original play such fun and putting all the production eggs into the Jennifer Saunders basket meant that it dipped noticeably when she was off-stage, which was a lot of the time.

I did enjoy Blithe Spirit but not as much as I expected and it was not the play that I had gone to see.

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